Ireland’s ambassador to the United States Daniel Mulhall, right, speaks at an event in Washington in May 2019. (N. Liu / VOA)
Ireland’s ambassador to the United States Daniel Mulhall, right, speaks at an event in Washington in May 2019. (N. Liu / VOA)

WASHINGTON - The drift toward economic nationalism in parts of Europe and elsewhere — reinforced in last month's European Parliament elections — holds little appeal for the people of Ireland, according to that country's ambassador in Washington.

"Most Irish people realize that we've been beneficiaries of globalization," said Daniel Gerard Mulhall at a recent event in the U.S. capital. "When Ireland first joined the EU, we were the poorest country, now we're one of the most successful." 

News coverage of the EU-wide elections focused heavily on the gains made by far-right and nationalist parties in several countries, especially Italy. But Mulhall saw the results as a "mixed picture," noting that major gains by environment-minded Green parties balanced the growth of what he described as "anti-immigrant, anti-EU, borderline racist parties." 

The dog that didn't bark

In Ireland, he said, "We've resisted temptations to blame foreigners for the problems we have," adding that forecasts of a far-right takeover of the European Parliament were overwrought.

"That dog didn't bark," he said.

While centrist parties of both the right and left suffered setbacks in the elections, Mulhall said that was not the case in Ireland. 

"Economic nationalism makes no sense for Ireland. If you ask the Irish people what they want from life, the answer is probably 'more of the same'," he said at an event hosted by the Sustained Dialogue Institute. "But of course we can't be complacent," he added quickly.

Mulhall noted that in harder times in the past, Irish emigrants heading abroad in search of a better life often were not well treated. Memories of those times contribute to their current determination "not to make that mistake" in Ireland, he said.

For all his appreciation of the EU and what it has done for Ireland, the ambassador cautioned against overstating the 28-nation bloc's power over peoples' lives.

The EU "doesn't do the big things in life; it doesn't do defense very much if at all, it doesn't do much foreign policy, it doesn't do social welfare, it doesn't do education, it doesn't do health, it doesn't do personal taxation," he said. What it does is run a free trade area, "with a few bells and whistles on it."

Speaking to VOA after his formal remarks, Mulhall said the relationship between Ireland and Britain "couldn't be closer" in spite of the strains caused by the British vote to leave the EU. "Brexit makes things complicated, but it won't undermine the general affinity we have between us," he said.

Joyce vs Dickens

Yet he could not resist the temptation to favorably compare Irish literary figures to their English counterparts.

William Butler Yeats, he said, is Ireland’s Shakespeare and James Joyce “our Charles Dickens.”  

“But Joyce is much more than Dickens because Joyce takes the novel to a different level which Dickens could never have imagined," he said. Dickens “was trying to tell a story” while Joyce “was trying to get to the mind of an individual character, and those are different things.”

In his spare time, Mulhall writes a blog about Ulysses, Joyce’s modernist take on The Odyssey by Homer, and hopes to publish a collection of his ruminations to commemorate Ireland’s 100 years of independence in 2022.

There are 33 million Americans who identify themselves as having Irish heritage.  On a recent visit to Washington, Ireland’s Minister for Education Joe McHugh visited the grave of President John F. Kennedy, the nation’s first president with Irish roots, at Arlington Cemetery; he also found 44 McHughes among those buried there.